DANVILLE — If 34 Southwest and Cannon first-graders had to solve 28 story problems to prepare for an upcoming math contest, and they already completed nine, how many more must they do?

That was one of the multi-step problems they were given at Danville schools' inaugural First Grade Math Challenge at Southwest on Friday.

Teachers and parents were pleased when all of the students came up with the correct answer: 19. They were even more pleased when the youngsters, for a bonus point, could explain the various solution strategies they used to reach it.

"That's the whole point: to show us what their thinking is," said Southwest teacher Rena Pate, who created the challenge and wrote a book on how to make math rigorous, relevant and fun for primary students. "They're not only showing us they can add and subtract. They're showing us they understand the processes. As the problems get more and more complex, they'll have all of that knowledge to draw on."

An educator for 23 years, Pate started out teaching third-graders and was discouraged to discover many already struggled with and disliked math. Some thought it was boring, some too complex, and some just didn't see the point.

However, when Pate moved to first grade, she was pleasantly surprised to see the younger students had a different perception. They were eager to learn.

As a teacher and later graduate student and National Board Certified Teacher candidate, Pate researched math texts and materials and found their curriculums too simplistic or not relevant to young children. So she created lesson plans, story problems and activities that drew on situations that would hold their attention as well as require them to use critical-thinking, communication and collaboration skills.

Pate shared her strategies at teaching seminars. After encouragement from peers, she compiled them in a book, "When Do Dandelions Become Weeds? A Primary Guide for Problem Solving," published in 2011. (The title is a metaphor for people's perception of math as they grow older, she explained.)

Friday's competition was based on Pate's book, which she and some colleagues used to supplement a new math series this year. In groups of three, students tackled 10 complex problems including 6 + X = 13.

"Seven!" Southwest student Houston Bryant exclaimed, after consulting with a 1-100 number chart.

"I know why. Six plus six equals 12, and one more is 13," he explained, getting a high-five from his team's judge, Southwest data and instructional facilitator Kelly Truex.

On another problem, students had to compute how many seeds they would plant on Saturday, if they started out planting three on Monday and one more than the day before each day after. Cannon students Elyjah Gilliard, Jonathan Willhite and Timothy Scott showed how they made a day chart then drew the correct number of flowers under each day to come up with the answer: eight. Across the table, Southwest students Anistyn Coleman, Rachella Swaim and Evan Valdez showed how they added numerals together to reach the answer and get a bonus point for figuring out the total number of seeds planted: 33.

"That's showing us they really understand," Cannon Principal Kimberly Pabst said, adding that higher level of thinking is required of the Common Core State Standards that soon will be used to measure achievement. "That's the mastery piece of it. And it's great to see their enthusiasm. They're jumping out of their chairs and really going after it."

At the end, Pate awarded all 12 teams ribbons for reaching the championship level, which they could only achieve by earning bonus points. She said only two teams missed a perfect score by one point.

Parents said they were impressed. "She's doing a lot of stuff we didn't do in first grade, and it soaks in," Troy Rutan said of his daughter, Abigail, describing how she does math problems on her chalkboard at home.

"It's really challenging her, and she loves it," Nicole Lewis said of her daughter, Peyton Joyner. "This is going to give them an upper hand when they get into pre-algebra and algebra."

They're climbing out of their seats to get at those problems! They look so smart.

The future of the world dream is dependant on the enthusiastic young, thank you Rena Pate that you inspire, educate and think of these children.